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International Academy of Sex Research Presentations

Attention to Visual Sexual Stimuli: An Eye Tracking Study

Rupp, H.A., & Wallen, K. The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and Department of Psychology and the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30308 USA (email: hrupp@indiana.edu)

Males and females respond differently to the presentation of visual sexual stimuli in terms of neural activation and genital and subjective arousal. It is unknown what specific components of visual sexual stimuli are important to males and females in their assessment. To investigate this, we measured the gaze patterns of 15 male and 30 female (15 normal cycling (NC) and 15 on oral contraceptives (OC)) heterosexual adults across three sessions during which they viewed 72 sexually explicit photos depicting couples engaged in oral sex and intercourse while eye movements were recorded using a head mounted eye tracker system (Applied Science Laboratories, Model 501).

Females were tested in a counterbalanced design at their menstrual, periovulatory*, and luteal+ phases of their menstrual cycle and males were tested at equivalent intervals. Viewing time, number and rate of visual fixations were measured for each picture along with subjective ratings of sexual attractiveness. To investigate potential hormonal influences on attention, finger prick blood spots were collected at each session to measure Testosterone in males and Progesterone in females, used to confirm periovulatory versus luteal phases.

Compared to females, males had the shortest view times, fewest fixations, lowest fixation rates, highest subjective ratings, and spent the most time within the female face look zone of the pictures. Women not taking oral contraceptives were between males and OC females on all measures, but showed the most first looks within the genital look zone compared to the other groups. OC females had the longest view times, highest fixation rates, and increased attention to the background and clothing look zones compared to other groups. Within males, higher levels of Testosterone were associated with increased viewing time and fixation number. The NC females tended to gaze more at the genital zone during the luteal phase. Also, if the NC female participants first session occurred during their periovulatory phase, they had more interest in the stimuli across all sessions than if they started in their luteal phase. Within OC females, there was an even stronger main effect of start phase; if they began testing during their menstrual phase they responded with more interest to the stimuli across all sessions.

Together, these data implicate hormonal influence in a sex dependent manner. In males, their attention to the stimuli seems directly influenced by Testosterone levels, perhaps via Testosterone’s influence on male sexual motivation. For females, however, their attention to visual sexual stimuli appears to be a much more complex pattern of expectation related to a conditioning effect of hormones on their first exposure. In sum, this study shows that males and females do evaluate to the same visual sexual stimuli differently and that hormones contribute to within sex variation in attention.

*Periovulatory phase: egg release, or the time around ovulation in a women’s menstrual cycle

+Luteal phase: the time between ovulation and menstruation

 

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